Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime

Credit is given where credit is due regarding the overlooked gems of my lifetime.

Monday, November 21, 2005

George Sanders

Am I cheating by including an actor who had but one role of note that occurred during my lifetime? Nah, film is forever! I'll keep this one brief, because I'm by no means the first person of my generation to have identified this overlooked gem. Please allow me this not-so-overlooked entry for I have worked hard to uncover many other gems that were previously far from our culture's collective radar.

George Sanders was a character actor who specialized in cads and creepy, scheming runners up to the affections of leading ladies. What set Sanders apart was the ounce of sympathy with which he could invest his creeps. There was a lurking sense that, as PiL might have said, he only wanted to be loved. Not quite a Creep with a Heart of Gold, but often a creep with a heart of some sort.

The voice of George Sanders was seared into my brain from childhood as the villain of The Jungle Book movie, Shere Khan. In real life, as I would discover years later, he looked about as lionine as that voice sounded. Not enough people look the way their voice sounds. It turns out, as I read up on him, that he also put that trained voice to use as a singer, releasing albums that were met with better regard than, say, those that would be released by William Shatner's.

Rebecca, All About Eve, and The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, are the human roles with which I've come to most associate him. You probably know about the first two. Not enough people I talk to know The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, a relatively recent discorvery from a previous lifetime that I recommend checking out (especially those of you who are fans of life after death romances of the Heaven Can Wait ilk). Sanders' ability to infuse a little soul in a character you really don't want anything to do with is at its most subtle in this performance. Other movies that display this actor's detatched, sad magic include Foreign Correspondent and The Picture of Dorian Gray, the latter a film in which his decadence was allowed full reign.

The guy's biography alone is interesting. Born to English parents in Russia. Married to both Zsa Zsa Gabor and, for a brief time toward the end of his life, one of her sisters, Magda. At one point, he was reported to have been under the simultaneous care of seven psychiatrists. Truly, Sanders seemed to have a real interest in matters of the psyche. In 1937, he announced to David Niven that he would commit suicide when he grew old, which he carried out in 1972. I've read a few reports of his suicide note, but each variation rings true to the spirit of his characters. Who knows, regarding these warmed-over bios, but you'll find more of this good stuff if you poke around.

Now, if you didn't read that link I provided at the beginning of this entry, please do so now. Let 'em know I sent you.

Monday, November 14, 2005

Thelma Evans from Good Times

I want to keep this wholesome and respectful, so relax guys! I was flipping channels the other night, and I caught an episode of the fairly gritty Norman Lear sitcom Good Times. It's always a pleasure to revisit the Evans family! Early JJ was a seriously funny character. Father James Evans, Sr., played by the awesome John Amos, was as manly and tough a loving father figure as anyone could desire. Who could forget that great theme song and the final shot of JJ's memorable painting? Neighbor Willona hit just the right mark. Mother Florida and righteous younger brother Michael always delivered. And Thelma...sweet, hip Thelma. The sister who kept it together. The sister who had it all together.

The next to last thing I want to do is open the floodgates to drooling teenage memories, and the last thing I want to do is fire up some cheap jungle fever, but growing up white in a white neighborhood, Thelma was something else. This brief bio of actress BernNadette Stamis, who portrayed Thelma, cheesy as it may be, captures part of her appeal. She was The Girl Next Door in neighborhoods I rarely ventured; specifically, she was the Girld Next Door in the Low-Rent, High-Rise Housing Project. Who can judge the actual worth of a novel character on a better-than-average tv show that, at least, aimed for a degree of realism? I can say that Thelma's appeal posed neither barriers nor qualifiers. It was something fresh in its time, and it's a concept that still needs refreshing today. Hopefully, this makes enough sense.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Big Dipper, Heavens

NOTE: Since this was posted, almost the entire Big Dipper catalog has been reissued in one box set by Merge. It's highly recommended!

Frequently, the hardest thing to do when detailing the Overlooked Gems of My Lifetime is trying to articulate why I love or appreciate something small so deeply. I can tear apart things big and small that I don't like in my sleep, but the challenge of maintaining this blog is trying to share positive feelings about things that may never have made a blip on your radar. Let's see how this one goes.

Big Dipper's first full-length album, Heavens, hit the spot for me from the first time I spun it. I liked their debut ep just fine, but it didn't resonate in my soul the way my favorite records do. There's a chance you've never heard of this band, and it's probable that if you know anything about Big Dipper you know more about their musical bloodlines: Volcano Suns, Dumptruck, The Embarrassment... The less said about Volcano Suns the better. As I've stated, it's really important that I keep things on the up and up here, but I will give their sound, at its relative best, some credit for the lurching, throbbing quality of many of Big Dipper's finest song. Dumptruck was a fine, if sometimes stiff (on record), brainy pop band. The Embarrassment, who are well-documented in the hipster underground, was a blast, and the fact that their guitarist Bill Goffrier ended up as one of the frontment of Big Dipper is the genesis of this entry.

I stumbled into seeing The Embarrassment open for PiL in Chicago in 1981 or so, and although they were completely inappropriate for the bill, they were tremendous and transcended what could have been a turned off, snot-nosed crowd that had come to see John Lydon and Keith Levine wave their middle fingers at Rock 'n Roll. The Embarrassment were full of enery, smarts, and good humor. These were important qualities that Big Dipper would exploit.

Heavens came out of the gates strong, with an eerie painting on the cover (courtesy of present-day professional artist Goffrier), the easy-to-swallow "She's Fetching", and the skiffle-pop of "Man o' War". As is so often the case with the best songs of Big Dipper, I read reviews and follow recommendations of other bands, check out their music, and come away thinking "No, based on what I was told, Big Dipper's [insert title] is what this band was supposed to sound like!" For instance, I saw Yo La Tengo after hearing great raves about their first album, back in the days when they had a second guitarist/banjo player. They were fine, but this Big Dipper song is what early Yo La Tengo was supposed to have sounded like. My apologies if I've completely lost you on this concept, but my thanks if you stick with me.

The fun, the energy, and the charmingly eery feeling from the album cover do not stop thereafter. Their sound contains elements of jangle-pop, Boston underground post-punk, and more. Goffrier and second singer-guitarist Gary Waleik, the crucial Steve Diggle to Goffrier's Pete Shelly, supplied expressive, melodic voices that few (if any?) of their Boston underground brethern could match. Side 1 (ah, the power of actual album sides - there's a future Overlooked Gem) ends with a relatively long, pulsating song called "Lunar Module". Crank it up when you finish reading this entry, track down a copy of this album, and find it waiting in your mailbox. Imagine if XTC's Andy Partridge, following the release of Black Sea, had the 4 x 4 surgically removed from his butt and took his mates back to the studio for a loose, rocking set of brainy, repressed pop.

Side 2 opens with the band's most-accessible song, "All Going Out Together". Children of the '80s will hum the decent and similarly-themed "I'll Stop the World and Melt with You" for eternity, but I'll take this ditty to the grave. Again, I'm completely satisfied as this album side plays out. And yes, I'm still spinning my old vinyl copy. Seemingly, this album has yet to be reissued on CD. I hope I'm wrong (I often am). Come on, already! If you're reading this and you own the rights to this album, please contact me. I know a label that would be interested in bringing this album to light.

I saw the band as often as I could in their heyday. This was during a period in my life when, like Mikey, I didn't like much of anything. After shows, I'd make sure to go up to as many of the band members as possible and tell them how great I thought they were, etc. Waleik, in particular, was aces! A few years ago, when I realized he was the producer credited at the end of the extremely tasty public radio sports show It's Only a Game, I wrote him a fanboy e-mail in that same appreciative tone, and he at least pretended to remember me. Aces, I tell you.

They shoulda been contenders. I know, they didn't have a pretty boy with pouty lips and a vacant drug-induced gaze up front, but Big Dipper, circa Heavens, had the goods. The band would actually move up to bigger labels, but the nooks and crannies of Heavens were increasingly smoothed over by the production of their final albums.

Last year, Tom Scharpling, host of my favorite radio show, The Best Show on WFMU, spent a number of episodes trying to organize a Big Dipper reunion show. I followed this news religiously, or so I thought (perhaps I wasn't as strong in my faith as I thought I was, which shouldn't surprise me), but then the story seemed to fizzle out. I don't know if the show happened or not, but it was fun thinking about it.